The Things They Leave Behind

The Things They Leave Behind

Paul Salopek finds many items dropped on the trail by migrating travelers making their way from Africa to the Middle East. Content warning: The following text contains references to violence.


5 - 12


English Language Arts, Social Studies, Geography, Anthropology, Storytelling

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In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of Paul Salopek's first steps on his Out of Eden Walk journey, this dispatch is now available for educational use in fifth- and eighth-grade reading levels. The original text is available as the default reading level, as well as on the Out of Eden Walk website.

By Paul Salopek


We see dead flashlight batteries, two Ethiopian coins, a green plastic comb, and underwear.

By foot, we are three days away from reaching the Ethiopian border.

We travel across volcanic rock that is hot and endless. It is a plain of stones the color of charcoal. There is no sign of life—not even a plant. The view is bare and strange, like those photographs taken by robots on another planet. And then we see a woman’s shoe. It’s size 36 and fake leather with rhinestones attached. Further on, there’s a baseball cap that has faded to grey in the sun. Then, we see dozens—no, hundreds—of cracked water bottles. (These are cooking oil jugs, many wrapped in burlap for cooling.)

For weeks, we have been roaming through this desert, where every piece of trash is picked up and used for another purpose. Now, we have entered a new part of Rift Valley. It stretches 150 miles or more into Djibouti and all the way to the Red Sea. It is filled with litter from wanderers. Somewhere ahead there’s a border crossing where migrant workers from all over the African Horn gather and wait. They are walkers, too. They walk to Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Dubai. They aren’t here to hunt oryx with stone-tipped spears, like the early humans who walked out of Africa did. They’re not here because of a silly idea, like we are today. They have come to find work so they can buy food.

They are Oromos from the south of Ethiopia and Tigreyans from the highlands. They are refugees escaping the ruined landscape of Somalia. A few of them left the Eritrean army. There are young men and a few women. They have to be strong, because the desert crossing is harsh and dangerous. Some die of thirst. They risk drowning as they cross the Red Sea in open boats. Still, they come. At least one hundred thousand people a year leave the continent this way. They travel mostly at night, guided by smugglers. This barren plain is filled with walkers after dark. Under the stars, the migration out of Africa continues.

The Afar nomads call them hahai. Hahai means “people of the wind.”

They pass through the desert, leaving little behind except what they drop on the trails: a sandal, a cooking pot, and worthless money.

We see glasses frames (lenses missing), a tee shirt, a can of Gillette shaving cream, and a sun-rotted backpack (with children’s cartoons drawn on it).

We meet the hahai one morning at an Afar camp.

There are 15 of them. They are tired men from the mountains of Ethiopia—one of the poorest nations in the world. The United Nations lists it as 174th out of 187 countries in terms of poverty level. The men are traveling toward the less poor country of Djibouti, which is ranked 165th. They hope to reach even less poor Yemen, which is ranked 154th. These rankings explain why these men remain invisible.

They sit on the rocks after a night of hiking. They take sips from jugs of water. One man uses his bare hand to stir besso, a barley gruel, in a dented tin pot. Their smuggler is an old Afar man. He sits apart from them, looking well-dressed in electric blue socks and high-top tennis shoes.

“Yemen is hard,” one migrant says. He says that people are being killed there.

He sees by the look on my face that I do not believe him.

“It is true,” another man insists. He calls himself Daniel. He has been walking for 13 days since leaving Wollo Province. He is headed to a job picking dates in Saudi Arabia. It pays 4,000 Ethiopian birr—about $200—a month. This is a large sum. It’s double what he earns as a laborer in Ethiopia. He tells this story:

Last year, in Yemen, his group was attacked by thieves. The Yemenis stabbed and killed one migrant. Daniel hid in the bushes for three days without food. Then he slipped away to the Saudi border. He smiles as he tells this story. All the men are smiling. The besso is ready to eat. They say nothing more. The story is over.

We see two address books with Dubai phone numbers (chewed by mice), pants, a jam jar, and a bullet casing.

At night, our little walking group is stalled.

My guide, Ahmed Alema Hessan, is sick. I am sick. We are all hungry. We have walked 22 miles. We only have a few packets of noodles and a few biscuits left. We let the fire go out early. We lie awake in our blankets. I am thinking of a white house filled with sun, surrounded by green trees. I imagine a woman’s laughter filling the kitchen, along with the caw-caw of the hadada ibis bird. My heart is dreaming.

“Paul?” Alema hisses in the dark. “Hey, Paul.”

But I have already heard the sound. It’s a faint rumbling and it’s growing a little louder, like the approach of herd of wild animals. But can there be animals in this place? The nearest blade of grass is miles away. I sit up.

Then they appear in the pale beam of Alema’s flashlight.

It’s a group of men and women. There are five or six. Then I see a dozen. Then there are many of them. They march past our camp in a single line. I try to count them, but I give up after reaching 90. Their feet raise dust. They don’t look up. They carry no lights. They leave little behind. We don’t speak to each other. My tongue is frozen.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Oliver Payne
Text Levels
Web Producer
Bayan Atari, National Geographic Society
Instructional Designer
Dan Byerly, National Geographic Society
With help froms
Claudia Hernandez-Halper
Kate Gallery, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

January 22, 2024

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